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The Forgotten: Death From Above

William Wyler's second WWII documentary, _Thunderbolt_, avoids jingoism and presents a curiously clear-eyed yet psychopathic outlook on war.
David Cairns

William Wyler's wartime documentary Memphis Belle is fairly well-known, and even had the questionable honor of a dramatic feature film remake by Michael Caton-Jones and David Puttnam. Slightly less celebrated is Wyler's follow-up, which came out after the war had ended. John Sturges assisted.

Thunderbolt (1947)—which you can watch in its entirely via the YouTube embed, above—deals with American fighter-bombers in Italy and might be useful to show to anybody convinced by the George Lucas-produced Red Tails, once they're out of diapers. See Catch 22 for a different view of the same theater of operations.

Who knows how much artifice went into these films? Certainly footage from multiple missions was cut together to create cohesive narratives depicting single missions, but all the combat is genuine and the material was gathered at tremendous risk. Air crews wondered how Wyler could function without collapsing in terror: they had a plane to fly or a gun to fire, which kept them occupied. He had a camera, which did the same thing. In the end, he was injured: he lost most of his hearing from the engines' roar.

Thunderbolt begins, helpfully (after Jimmy Stewart's intro, tacked on to try and drum up box office in 1947 when the thing was finally released by Poverty Row outfit Monogram) with its own making-of documentary, showing how the pilots became camera operators, activating little automatic 16mm cameras bolted to their planes whenever action seemed imminent. Now, here's where I'd let the team down by lacking the proper spirit: if I were a fighter pilot, I'd flatly refuse to push any buttons that didn't have to do with flying my plane and keeping me alive. And I like filming things.

Thunderbolt differs somewhat from its predecessor, maybe because of Wyler's injury, maybe because the war had ended. It's less gung-ho, less propagandistic, seemingly unconcerned with making the war look good. Even the campaign it's covering is called Operation Stranglehold. And it has a low-affect, murderous you-are-there voice-over by Llloyd Bridges which progressively creeps me the hell out. A simple lesson in war economics begins at 23:46.

You've completed your original mission and dropped all your bombs, but you still have ammo and fuel, so it makes sense to use them while you're in the air anyway. Shooting things like trains and radio stations and lighthouses makes sense because it's sure to inconvenience the enemy.

Then "your" plane starts strafing random farmhouses, and some guy crossing a field. "He's no friend of yours." The documentary attempts no moral judgement of these actions. It's simply cost-effective to put your bullets inside people rather than lug them back to base: at least some of your victims will no doubt turn out to be people your side would rather not have around.

Civilian casualties barely make the news even today. These days, we use automated drones which, if they could talk, would speak in the voice of  Lloyd Bridges.


The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.


ColumnsThe ForgottenVideosWilliam Wyler
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